The Death of Rafiki

I have been contemplating the death of Rafiki, a Mountain Gorilla of Uganda. Rafiki carried the energy of a place and time on our planet, much like Cecil the Lion of Zimbabwe in 2016, and his death is a wake up call for humanity. They were both well-loved, protected animals in their respective countries and both represented a new kind of relationship between the human and non-human animal kingdom. Rafiki is more like kin to us though, sharing up to 96% of our DNA. He is our brother. He is one of our direct ancestors from Africa.

John and I visited Uganda in early February 2020. I felt called to connect with the Mountain Gorillas that reside on the 31st meridian in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I have a personal and spiritual relationship with the Mountain Gorillas. Gorillas in the Mist was my first date with John. I was passionate about Dion Fossey’s work with the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and Jane Goodall’s work with the Chimpanzees of Uganda.

I took a Primate Behavior Class at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the 1970’s and worked as a data collector at the Primate lab there (a dark part of my own journey). I also became acutely aware of how they were endangered and at risk of becoming extinct. The forest they lived in was being encroached upon as civilization grew. In addition, resources were found in the forest that are used in our cell phones in addition to other highly valuable metals, and gems as well as primate body parts that got a good price on the market.

Thus, through the years a movement developed to protect these vulnerable beings and to educate the community and the world about who they are. This included a renewal of respect between these gentle creatures and humans that established a new lens through which we all could see these gentle giants. They are vegetarians and peaceful when not threatened. In a respectful relationship with them, we co-exist quite well together.

The countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo have developed extensive programs to educate their citizens and develop pride in these sacred beings as a part of their heritage as well as finding ways to support the community with tourist jobs and income so their villages’ development included schools. We saw the local people dance, sing and drum as a part of this education for the tourists as well as for their own communities.

We hired porters to support us hiking into the Impenetrable Forest, paying them a small fee to carry our backpacks but more importantly to pull and push us up the steep incline and through very dense thickets of vines and brush. The porters would show up each morning waiting to earn a few dollars to support their life in their villages. There were many other jobs made available for the local people; trackers and guards as well as scientists, researchers and more.

You see there is a lot that goes on to make this happen. Lots of money comes in from tourists to pay a lot of folk’s salaries to better their life. This has been a whole system overhaul to create protection for the mountain gorillas as well as re-establish a relationship, heal a disconnect from us and the natural world caused by repeated traumas.

But to do this, to protect the Mountain Gorillas, they had to find ways to protect the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. So they set rules and regulations to protect the forest. These rules forced the people out of the forest. The Batwa people who lived in the forest for thousands of years were relocated out of the forest into camps. They are now living a different kind of life than when they were connected to the forest; living off the land. They were forest dwellers. Now they have to find other ways to survive and one is to share their former ways of living in re-enactments for tourists.

Then there is the story of the medicine man who can no longer go in the forest to collect the sacred plant medicine he uses to treat his people for various diseases. Nothing is allowed out of the forest. And the story of the blacksmith who can no longer collect iron ore from the earth in the forest to make his wares for his people, so he is using recycled metal for his craft.

The local people were very much in relationship with the land and in addition to the plants and rocks often hunted animals to supplement their diet for their families. This too is no longer allowed.

Historically, we see that over time hunting was influenced by the demand for body parts of animals or the animals themselves which had an influence on the societal structure. The local people began to see that hunting for money as opposed to food was a way out of their poverty (caused by a myriad of traumas, including the brutal colonization in this region over many generations). This led to the near extinction of one of our closest relatives, which led to the boundaries around the Impenetrable Forest that have drastically affected the way the local people live, increasing their poverty and suffering.

Note that the tourism is in crisis right now as the parks are closed to protect the mountain gorillas from the corona virus. In addition, there is restricted international and domestic travel due to the pandemic. Thus no money is coming into the communities to support them in this crisis.

It is in this context that we see the four men who are being charged with the killing of Rafiki and facing life imprisonment. The killing is tragic and really does break my heart. How it has affected Rafiki’s troop of fourteen mountain gorillas is still unfolding. I too initially felt appalled, outraged, how could they do this? What motivates someone to kill such an incredible being?

However, is there not another tragedy here? What is these men’s story? How has their story been affected by the historic trauma in Uganda? What supports healing in a community? Is it an eye for an eye? Is putting these men in prison where they will be isolated from their communities the answer? What heals individuals in this region of Africa or in our own back yard?

When we punish instead of looking to reconnect does it help? Or does it cause more trauma revisited on generation upon generation? Is there not a better way to support these men and the communities in which they live?

We are living in unprecedented times that are calling for an overhaul of the patriarchal systems that keep re-traumatizing races, cultures, genders and nature. We need a compassionate rethinking of the systemic us vs. other thinking, bad vs. good, right vs. wrong. We are all a part of the whole. It has never been us vs. them.